Emerging accountability in West Africa

Sat, 1 May 2010 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

For long, endemic corruption in West Africa has seen the region engulfed in gruesome civil wars, executions, state collapse, military coup detats and state paralyzes. This made the region Africa’s most troubled and most crime-infested area. Whether in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria or Mali, corruption saw the state helplessly spinning in mid air, gaping for accountability.

For some time, accountability wasn’t part of the region’s development equation (at least in the open) and it was rare to hear any state official charged with corruption, convicted, jailed or made to pay for the money or property stolen. State treasuries were looted with impunity, transparency was nil and such culture snowballed into virtually non-existence of maintenance culture, seeing state property abandoned to rot. Part of the reason was the political practices then: anarchic one-party systems and self-serving dictatorial military juntas deeply addicted to Africa’s notorious Big Man syndromes that were unaccountable to the people. This was in the face of weak institutions and unenforced regulations. As Nigeria’s prominent journalist Dan Agbese (of Newswatch Magazine) would say, the “typical African Big Man, dwarfs weakened and wrecked institutions and relishes his giant status among the weakened and the wrecked.”

But, gradually, for the past 20 years as democracy increasingly gains root and anti-corruption campaigners emboldened and people learn from the painful moral hazards of corrupt practices and institutions and regulations being grown, West Africa is progressively tackling its addictive corruption and fostering accountability as part of its new development game. Whether in small Sierra Leone or medium-sized Ghana or the giant Nigeria, Big Men and Women, top politicians and elites are being indicted under the new accountability thinking.

In Ghana, the former Chief of Staff and Minister for Presidential Affairs under President John Kufour, Kwadwo Okyere Mpiani, who was the chairman of the National Planning Committee of the Ghana@50 celebrations and other prominent political Big Men, are to refund an amount of US$360,000 in connection with the rental of Largus Forte Hotel during the Ghana@50 celebrations. Before this, other Ministers, politicians and bureaucrats have been indicted.

In Nigeria, spearheaded by its outstanding Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that has been pushing the frontiers of accountability by indicting the once powerful Big Men and Women, the chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party, Vincent Ogbulafor, has been charged with fraud. Ogbulafor is accused of fraudulently awarding US$1.5m in federal funds when he was a government minister under President Olusegun Obasanjo.

In Sierra Leone, where widespread corruption saw the country collapsed for almost 14 years, the battle against corruption is running high with the arrest and prosecution of some cabinet ministers and senior government officials. Sierra Leone’s British-funded Anti-Corruption Commission, increasingly gaining clout after poor start, has hauled up Hajia Afsatu Kabba, the then-Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, and she faces 17 counts charges for graft and abuse of office.

In some sort of cooperative journalism and the positive mimicking of each other, corruption charges are reported simultaneously across the region’s mass media, broadly educating the public. It is common to either hear or read corruption cases in newspapers, radio stations, mobile phones and wed sites of different West African countries, some making the lead story. When the chairman of Nigeria's ruling Peoples Democratic Party, Vincent Ogbulafor, was charged with fraud, it made one of the lead stories on the Accra-based Joy FM web site myjoyonline.com. Similarly, when Sierra Leone’s then-Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Hajia Afsatu Kabba, was indicted for graft and abuse of office, it was carried as one of the top stories in the Lagos-based Daily Champion.

The news of such corruption charges are emboldening anti-corruption institutions, civil societies and anti-corruption campaigners across the region. Some Ghanaian anti-corruption campaigners have advocated for the institution of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in Ghana to fight corruption.

In Ghana, some traditional rulers, in rare instances have weighed in on the corruption issues and argued that some of the corruption troubles have their roots in traditional practices. The Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, Ghana’s most powerful King, recently admonished bureaucrats and politicians to be wary of corruption and embrace accountability. The unspoken wisdom through the Asantehene is that: traditional Ghana/West Africa has recovered its confidence, its astuteness of goodwill, or anyway its gift for doing things right in Ghana's and West Africa’s progress. In the Asantehene, accountability is as traditional as it is modern.

Certain parts of the Ghanaian/African tradition fuel corruption, as Jean-Francois Bayart explains in The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, where in an allegorical nepotistic, corrupt African state government officials, businessmen and businesswomen, elites, traditional linchpins and Big Men and Women, sometimes with the backing of juju-marabout spiritual mediums and other spiritualists, use their influence to “enrich themselves, their families or ethnic kinsmen.”

The Asantehene, as traditional leader and accountant, knows the destructive implications of corruption in traditional and modern African setting that has asphyxiated many an African state's progress. In Criminalisation of the State in Africa, Jean-Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Beatrice Hibou argue that the growth of fraud and smuggling in African states, the marauding of natural resources, the privatization of state institutions, and the development of an economy of plunder make garbage of the state and the state itself becomes a vehicle for organized criminal activity, as Nigeria and Guinea Bissau show.

Corruption set Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia on flames. It saw the angry Ft. Lt. Jerry Rawlings executing some military Big Men in Ghana; it saw Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front amputating, killing, maiming, arsoning, raping and counting-looting Sierra Leone; it saw Liberia set on bonfire and President Samuel Doe killed like an armed robber with his ears cut off, paraded naked in public and his disfigured dead body dumped in an unknown grave. For long, endemic corruption has paralyzed Guinea Bissau, making it helpless and mired in some sort of permanent bereavement.

Unaccountability, that sparked military coup detats, saw all sorts of despicable people emerge on the African scene and further destroyed Africa. It saw “small boys” like Sierra Leone's Valentine Strausser and Samuel Doe waving matches and playing on the volatile African political scene and setting it on fire. At the extreme end, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Kenyans, Congolese and Nigerians will sadly tell you terrible stories about the moral dangers of unaccountability and how it has negated their progress despite their immense natural wealth.

The Asantehene's idea is to make the case that accountability is as traditional as it is the soul of modern democratic practices and that tradition can help curb unaccountability. And the fact that how healthy a society is, is revealed in how accountable it is unto itself. As the crusade against corruption mounts, the Asantehene's traditional moral authority, in a holistic sense, makes him a perfect person to speak on accountability, in a non-partisan position, since many a corruption indictment has been interpreted as “politically motivated.” This will throw light on a troubling development cancer, and thus the darkness that hover on unaccountability to recede a bit.

Accountability, as an anti-dote to corrupt practices, hugely defines progress. The American economist John Kenneth Galbraith said “Hard, visible circumstance defines reality.” The reality of the African accountability campaigns is that it hasn't been addressed also from African culture, perhaps the key source of corruption. Now, in a holistic reasoning based on the African environment, as Jean-Francois Bayart argues in The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, the African culture is increasingly being factored in the campaigns against corruption.

More instructive in the emergent West African accountability thinking is Ft. Lt. Jerry Rawlings’s Ghana. In the past 20 years, public accountability, despite Rawlings' executions, threats, exiling and blowing markets into pieces, has been slow. Operating in no-party, military juntas, with all democratic antecedents muzzled, the almost 20 years of Rawlings rule wasn't openly accountable – for there was no democratic daylight into Rawlings' conclave. Watchdog roles to track corruption were virtually absent.

Anti-corruption institutions were weak, wrecked or none-existent compared to Nigeria that has set up the remarkable Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to tackle corruption. In the final analysis, Rawlings and his associates (who branded themselves as socialists as against the corrupt capitalists) are better of materially today than when they came to power. Logically, in Rawlings’ accountability universe we saw that, “moral concepts are lovely, but the key is governing these things by law,” as Elena Bonner, widow of Russian human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, said.

Still, the lessons for West Africa’s crusade against corruption can be drawn from Rawlings’s adventure on the Ghanaian political scene. In Rawlings, who projected himself as chief-priest of anti-corruption, accountability campaigns do not work in authoritarian regimes but better under democracies as Ghanaians and West Africans are experiencing today and as prosperous Mauritius and Botswana will tell West Africans. And that has given the traditional Asantehene the platform to speak out on accountability and corruption. In Rawlings, there are huge hypocrisy in the Ghanaian/West African accountability universe, with the boundary between conflict of interest and liability blurred.

Rawlings’ wife Nana Konadu Agyemang, the then-First Lady, and associate political big wigs bought state companies when they were in power, using their powerful influence and state money by manipulating conflict of interest regulations in their favour. This made public accountability weak and at the mercy of the powers-that-be instead of healthy public institutions and regulations to deal with it. In Nigeria, a group of high-ranking military personnel, mostly during the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Sani Abacha military juntas, demonstrate the networked nepotism characteristic of Bayart’s The Politics of the Belly by looting billions of dollars. In his four short years in power, Gen. Abacha and his family embezzled over US$4 billion.

Compare Rawlings’s hot-headed Ghana to the cool-headed Mauritius, which has the best development indicators in Africa. As David Carment (of Canada’s Carleton University) and Yiagadeesen Samy (of Canada’s Carleton University and the North-South Institute) have argued, Mauritius teaches Ghana and West Africa that accountability and anti-corruption campaigns, as part of the fertilizers for progress, is grown not with atrocious authoritarianism with its acute threats, fear of being killed and unfreedoms, public and private executions, brutal suppression, tyranny, deaths and extreme arbitrariness but good institutions and regulations represented by the rule of law, right leadership, democratic traditions and freedoms, especially freedom of the press, as well as property rights. The Mauritian miracle comes from this.

By talking about accountability and corruption, the Asantehene opens the floodgate for West African policy-makers, civil societies and anti-corruption campaigners to look also from the Ghanaian/West African culture when addressing corruption. This will aid the growing West African institutions and regulations currently tackling corruption as progress concern and help bring deeper order in a region that has seen much anarchy largely because of deadly sleaze and unaccountability.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi